Memories are typically biased in our favor. Despite what certainties we believe there tend to exist inaccuracies rooted in the heightened emotions of the moment in question. Such is the case with Tennessee Williams’s landmark play, The Glass Menagerie, which opens with the declaration that states “the play is memory”, thus coining the term memory play. Being semi-autobiographical, The Glass Menagerie relies on Williams’s heightened emotional state, as he remembers it, rather than a factual recreation of his life, so it should follow that this exaggeration of normal human emotions should be the emphasis. And yet, despite the initial script allowing for a dreamier depiction of Williams’s youth, most productions are have taken the grounded route near realism.
Set in his former home of St. Louis, The Glass Menagerie is Tennessee Williams’s semi-autobiographical memory play depicting the tension of the Wingfield household as Amanda Wingfield, the matriarch of the family, contends with her children’s desires for the future, all the while mutually haunted by their abandonment by the patriarchal Mr. Wingfield years earlier.
Set entirely within Tom Wingfield’s (Ben McLemore) memory of his home, the interior of the Wingfield home appears at once complete and fractured. Imagine a room in your childhood home; can you recall every single, solitary detail of the room or are there holes? I’ll assume the latter, and that’s how Andy Berkovsky’s set appears. The small apartment is complete with furniture, multiple rooms on and off stage, and plenty of objects recalled from Tom’s memory, most noticeably the titular menagerie far downstage. Yet the structure is also devoid of complete walls, doors, and in some cases food, requiring the cast to pantomime actions at times. Said pantomimes broke my immersion slightly at first, yet when I connected the vagueness of memory to these moments the actions suddenly fell in place. Similarly, Tom announces in the prologue that a memory play would contain multiple instances of dim, histrionic lighting, and this is most certainly true of the production. However, there were multiple instances of dimness in which the actors simply were not illuminated by what light was offered or simply not in their lights. Whether it was a choice by director Jeff Hinkle or the actors, or honest mistakes in blocking I cannot say, but these instances created a discernible disconnect with the story.
Menagerie’s cast consists entirely of four actors, with the ominous, upstage portrait of Mr. Wingfield acting as the fifth character (again, as stated by Tom in the prologue). Initial emphasis is placed on the matriarchal Amanda Wingfield (Terri Bennett) who floats between sweet and doting, and stern and indignant. To Bennett’s credit she was able to make Amanda’s outbursts of frustration towards her children authentic and suffocating as she imparted her older ways on the younger generation, and yet her softer, nostalgic moments felt lacking in the same conviction found in her other scenes. Naturally, these moments of high intensity visibly draw this command out of a character, but it felt absent in between these moments. As for out narrator, McLemore was able to maintain the sardonic and morose accents on most of his lines throughout the production. Similarly, Tom’s weariness at being trapped in his current situation was quite evident on McLenore’s countenance and vocal inflections. The end result was that I found him to be the most sympathetic and relatable character in the production, despite some of his callous, selfish actions.
The second act places more emphasis on Tom’s sister, Laura (Sarah Zeringue), and introduces her gentleman caller (Donato De Luca) as the fourth character, giving them a rather long scene together. It is often noted throughout the show that Laura is both physically frail and mentally troubled, yet neither seemed noticeable onstage. While I understand that Laura is meant to be introverted by nature, Zeringue struggled to engage interests as she hovered about the house. Similarly, I was unaware that Laura was meant to be crippled with a limp until it was directly stated by Bennett (ironically, while she reassuringly stated the limp was “barely noticeable”). Lastly, De Luca as Jim, similarly to Bennett, had his moments, but they were inconsistent. In connecting with Laura he felt genuine, though I struggled to see him as a man who has been beaten down by the recent years. Much of this came from a vocal tick in the form of awkward nervous laughter to cover silences which were fine at first, but became frustrating in their repetition by the end.
I would argue that both the strength and weakness with plays like The Glass Menagerie is how sparse they are in characters, set, and length. They’re succinct and streamlined. However, with as few elements as there are in such a show it makes the unfavorable aspects of a production more noticeable. While there are some great ideas and scenes within this production, The Glass Menagerie ultimately struggles to gather traction and engage the audience due to a few struggling performances.
The Glass Menagerie continues playing at the City Theatre Company every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm until August 14th.